Movie Review: The World's Fastest Indian
By Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
These days, when movies often fatuously exploit youth and condescend to age, it's refreshing to see something like Roger Donaldson's picaresque action movie "The World's Fastest Indian." This fast, funny, big-hearted picture, set in New Zealand and on the road in the American West, has an immensely likable sexagenarian hero, Burt Munro, played by the peerless, congenial Anthony Hopkins - a lead performance every bit as good as any on this year's slate of lead actor Oscar nominees.
Based on the story of New Zealand motorcycle builder and racer Munro - here shown running an amazing race on his ancient Indian Scout motorcycle at Bonneville Salt Flats in 1967 at the age of 68 - the film plays a little corny but only because the facts are corny-sounding to begin with. The real-life Burt, according to the record (which the movie somewhat alters), was a crusty, stubborn old guy, something of a geriatric lady-killer and an in-your-face combatant for all seasons.
At Bonneville, he was competing against riders up to four decades younger, who were driving perfectly tooled, ultra-modern machines. Burt's Indian, by contrast, was a near half-century-old bike he had bought in 1920 and fine-tuned and rebuilt himself in his Invercargill, New Zealand, garage, half a world away from Utah's salt flats and slick young racing sharpies such as his eventual "angel," Jim Moffet (played by Chris Lawford, son of Peter Lawford, with some of his dad's charisma and elegance).
To get to Utah, in the movie's lusty re-imagining of things, Burt has to scrape together traveling money, no small task. Then he has to leave his supportive neighbors and cinder-block digs, disassemble and pack his bike, and sail across the ocean to L.A., where he quickly meets such spunky characters as Tina, a drag queen motel clerk (Chris Williams), and Fernando, an amiably insincere used car salesman (Paul Rodriguez). Finally, we see him easy-ride across the desert on his reassembled chopper, where, after a nifty sexual interlude with one of the movies' all-time great biker chicks, Diane Ladd (Ada), he winds up at the possibly record-setting event, only to discover that he's not entered properly, he's too old, and his bike is wrongly configured.
Yet when the old guy overcomes the last obstacle and goes up against the young blood, defying all odds - along with his own weak heart and bad prostate - something happens that we usually only see in sentimental Hollywood movies aimed cynically at the heartstrings, movies like (you should pardon the expression) every "Rocky" sequel.
Here, it works. What saves "Indian" from seeming sentimental or cynical is director Donaldson's technically crisp, tough but warm direction of a story he obviously loves. Donaldson first worked with Hopkins when the actor played Captain Bligh on his 1984 "The Bounty." But though he's best known as a specialist in efficient, shallow thrillers or action movies ("No Way Out," "Dante's Peak" and the "Getaway" remake), Donaldson often has something extra. Besides "The Bounty," he also made the smart noir "White Sands," the JFK bio-drama "Thirteen Days" (on the Cuban missile crisis, with Lawford playing flight leader Ecker), and two of the best New Zealand New Wave movies, 1977's "Sleeping Dogs" and 1981's "Smash Palace."
According to the Magnolia press book, Donaldson has wanted to make this movie, the best of his career, since 1971, when he met the real-life Burt (then 72), and accompanied him on one last trip to Bonneville, where they made the low-budget documentary "Offerings to the God of Speed," named after a slogan on Burt's Invercargill shed. Over the years, since Burt died in 1978, Donaldson has floated and refloated the idea, never giving up.
Donaldson is obviously inspired by the subject, and though his script is sometimes predictable, he has given himself (and Hopkins) a great springboard, crafting an action road movie that also has real depth and emotion. What might have been chestnuts for another actor become wine and caviar for Hopkins, who can be a charming actor, even when he's playing maniacs or cannibals, like Hannibal Lecter, or when he's doing the priggish head butler of "Remains of the Day" or channeling Richard Nixon at his worst, sweatiest hour. But playing old Burt, with his indefatigable nerve and likable arrogance, brings out the actor's more attractive, mellow qualities. I can't vouch for Hopkins' Kiwi accent - the star himself calls it a little Cornish- but as with all actors who connect with a role's heart and guts, he sounds, looks and feels right. It's a large-souled, ribald and thoroughly alive portrait of this maddening, determined, wonderful old guy. When Burt slyly eyes Ada from the sheets, or expertly works Fernando's lot, or survives a crash in the desert, he builds up a hero who for once is truly heroic.
"The World's Fastest Indian"
Directed and written by Roger Donaldson; photographed by David Gribble; edited by John Gilbert; production designed by J. Dennis Washington (U.S.), Rob Gillies (N.Z.); music by J. Peter Robinson; produced by Donaldson and Gary Hannam. A Magnolia Pictures release; opens Friday, Feb. 3. Running time: 2:06. MPAA rating: PG-13 (brief language, drug use and a sexual reference).
Burt Munro - Anthony Hopkins
Ada - Diane Ladd
Tom - Aaron Murphy
Fernando - Paul Rodriguez
Fran - Annie White
Bob Higby - Chris Bruno
Marty Dickerson - Walton Groggins
Jim Moffet - Chris Lawford
Rolly Free - William Lucking
Tina Washington - Chris Williams